Plein Air Painting at Prouts Neck, Maine

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Here is a step-by-step account of a plein air experience on the Maine coast with a special emphasis on design and translucence. Prouts Neck, Maine is a rocky promontory protruding into the Atlantic just a few miles south of Portland. It was the studio home of Winslow Homer, the popular late 19th century landscape and seascape painter. Homer moved here in 1883. He painted many watercolors and made his drawing notes frequently outdoors but, his larger oil seascapes were made in his studio overlooking the rocks and ocean.  My director/producer/editor friend Connie Simmons arranged for me to paint on Prouts Neck  while explaining Winslow Homer’s techniques.  In two days of shooting we were able to try a variety of locations, weather and tide situations  in both quick watercolor sketches and, in oil on linen.  One subject Homer did not dwell upon was tide-pools and their translucence. Because of my interest in this, we devoted one of the painting sessions to a plein air tide-pool painting. I painted  the tide-pool for about one hour.  Tide and weather rapidly change here.  Example 1 is a shot of the tide-pool, actually a series of tide-pools.  Example 2 presents a couple of design sketches which I worked out quickly before beginning the painting.  Remember, neither Winslow Homer nor I were looking for a mimetic experience in the painting. Neither of us tried to copy or transcribe or map a scene. We both looked to generate a psychological effect from the painting which will necessarily mean redesign and reinterpretation of the geography and light. It also means being willing to accept the possibilities that chance offers in the act of painting and designing. Winslow Homer scrawled a message to himself  on his studio wall about the importance of the role of chance.

example 1. The tide-pool.

example 2.  Observe my two preliminary design sketches show a large arrow of light pointing to the back of the picture. The horizon is high in both.  Designing simplifies and distills the subject material. The design on the left is the second version showing a higher horizon with a less centered arrow.

example 3. Here is a view of the palette at the conclusion of the painting.  Clockwise from the upper left I used:  transparent red oxide, ultramarine blue, (on the palette but unused, viridian green), gamboge yellow, Scheveningen Blue light, titanium white, and vermillion red. I applied the paint using a two inch and a one inch Raphael synthetic sable watercolor wash-brush as well as my fingers and paper towels.

example 4. Here I begin by blocking in the darks. The painting is a light/dark painting. The darks (silhouetted rock shapes, all connected) reveal the shape of the light (reflective water) areas through negative inference.

example 5. Here is our video set-up.  Director Connie is in the foreground with one of the two cameras on a tripod. The other tripod is just out of the frame but, you can see the second camera resting on a rock. We have just finished the shoot. You can see my easel in the distance at the edge of the tide-pool.

example 6. This is the final version. The transparent area of the water appears in the foreground. As you raise your angle of vision the reflected sky occludes the transparent area of the water. It’s a slow transition from transparency to opacity. The territory below the surface is blurred and has a narrower range of value than the area (rocks) above the surface.

example 6. Here is a detail area from the painting.  Notice that the textures, acuity, and range of value from dark to light are more pronounced on the rocks that sit above the surface. Also observe that we perceive the relative depth of a rock (object) by its level of reflectance. The lighter the rock the closer it appears to the surface.


6 Responses

  1. Gail Ingis

    David, thanks for the post. Your work always presents a learning process for me. I found good information here for my opening scene in my book. The heroine is stepping on a relative flat surface of boulders in a deep brook. On a scale of one-to-five, five being the darkest, what would the light reflectance be? It would be fun to create a painting for the scene.

  2. Fredric Neuwirth

    This is great. I was there last September. Photographed the studio under renovation. The surface below the water is hard to render with out getting it to look like mud. Are all the paintings water color? I wish your blog had spell check. Nice job!

  3. Keith Brooks

    Good job, David!

    How about some protest paintings about how the one per cent super rich and corporations are corrupting our government and taking away our voices and our democracy.


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  4. Laurita liles

    It has been a true pleasure to see your videos and to absorb the information you provide: teach.
    I am always gleaming information to improve my painting, and your wealth of information has given me a whole new demention and understanding of the possibilities. Thank you.

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